Chasing the Interwebs

Another very common question I see on a lot of RV forums and from friends is “how do you get internet?”.  That’s a tough answer, and it depends on many variables.

Over the last 20 years that I owned a home, I had ever-increasing bandwidth on a wired connection.  This is a reliable way of connecting and in recent years largely unrestricted.  Having multiple computers, TVs, and IoT devices is typically not something you give a lot of thought to.

When you go mobile, that changes.  You have to take many things in to consideration.

Like everything else in RV life, you have to give serious thought to “What do I really need?”.  For example, in a sticks-and-bricks you may have a large closet full of shoes, shirts and jackets, some of which you wear once a year.  In an RV, you simply don’t have room for it, so you have to be honest with yourself about what you need versus what you want.  Same holds true for internet access.  Many people, especially younger people, do not watch actual TVs, instead opting to watch TV or movies on a tablet or even their phone.  Here are a few questions to consider when deciding how to deal with internet:

  • Do you plan to work from your RV?  Doing full time work, such as Tech Support or web development, can require high-bandwidth, stable connections.  This will require a higher-end plan.
  • Do you stream a lot of video content?  Either entertainment or work-related, this is the biggest Eater of The Bandwidth.  Again, this will require an unlimited plan and, thus, will be more expensive.
  • Do you just surf the web, check email, read forums, etc.?  There are lots of plans out there that can handle this.  Even getting a phone with a hotspot plan will work.
  • How many devices do you have to connect?  Just your phone?  A tablet?  Do you have a large network of devices that you need to connect?

As full time RVers, we have about what you would expect in a standard home: 2 phones, 2 smart TVs, 2 laptops, 2 tablets, a Furbo and a Facebook Portal.

Many plans offered by the Big 4 (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile) claim to offer “unlimited” data but that is not exactly accurate.  Having only experienced with AT&T and Verizon I can only speak to them.  AT&T is the worst deal, as they do not have a data-only unlimited plan.  They have a mobile hotspot router, made by Netgear, which has very impressive features, but the plans that AT&T offer do not have unlimited data.  When we spoke to an AT&T representative at their store, he showed us their offered plans as 15 Gb/month for $75.  After the 15 gigs, they shut you off.  No throttle, it just stops.  He said you can purchase additional 2 Gb increments for $10 each.  That doesn’t include the $200 cost of the Netgear Nighthawk mobile router.

15 Gb of data is about 12-14 hours of streaming video per month.

As of this writing, Verizon has come out with a new plan for truly unlimited data.  Their mobile hotspot router is called a Jetpack and the top-tier model is $200.  For $65/month, you can get their Pre-Paid Unlimited plan, which has no cap and no throttling.  After all the research we’ve done on this issue, this offering seems to be the best deal.   One caveat that you should keep in mind is that the Pre-Paid users are lowest priority for their “managed network”, meaning that “Post-Paid” users get preferred network bandwidth.  I’m not sure why that is, since we’re all paying in to their Executive Bonuses, but that’s the deal.

We opted for the pre-paid option and purchased the Jetpack outright.  It is a very nice, very small device (smaller than most cell phones).  It allows up to 15 devices to connect at a time, so it can handle our TVs, tablets and various peripheral devices.  Prior to getting the Pre-Paid plan, speed tests showed us getting .6 Mbs as expected.  After getting the Pre-Paid tests show between 10 and 25 Mps depending on the wind.  ** According to reviews I’ve looked at online the new plan does not throttle the Jetpack in any way, but keep in mind that your speed will depend on the quality of your cell service in whatever area you are in.

** Keep in mind the area we are currently in has very poor cellular connection.  In better areas our speed would increase.

Unlike  a permanent home, RV life offers many non-internet related distractions.  Were we are currently in Quintana, Texas, we have a nice beach to walk and let the dogs out (yes, it was us).  However, there is still plenty of time where Rachel and I are in the RV and looking for entertainment.  Unlike our house, I won’t be VPN’d into a remote desktop while downloading large files with Rachel upstairs watching Netflix and playing video games online.  Even more so when the girls still lived at home.  However, in the RV, the most we might be doing is streaming Netflix while I play Fortnite with my daughters and Rachel plays her Facebook games.  If we do a Portal call with the grandkids, then we’ll not be doing other things while we do that.  We don’t need Gigabit speeds, nor do we want the expense.

Something else to keep in mind: TV is a whole other consideration.  If you just watch certain shows you can stream it on Hulu, but if you are News Junkies (like me and Rachel) you will have to subscribe to a service like DirecTV Now or SlingTV.  We haven’t settled on our choice for live TV, but instead are making due with our HDTV antenna on the RV.  We get a lot of channels for free (lots of 80’s and 90’s sitcoms), and that is good enough for now.  There will, no doubt, be a blog about this issue later on.

We are still new to full-time RV life and we’re learning new things every day.  What we end up with a year from now may not be anything like our current setup.  I think it is fair to say that the Full-Time RV and Tiny House movements, combined with the changing way people are accessing information and entertainment are going to push Service Providers to change the way they gouge their customers…I mean… change their offerings.  T-Mobile is already making noise about replacing your home internet with their yet-to-be-released 5G network. No one currently has a 5G offering and like any new technology it will initially be expensive, but in a few years I suspect that having unlimited, high capacity broadband on a mobile platform will be the expected method of chasing the interwebs.